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A New Breakthrough for How We Treat Depression

Scientists were able to change deep-brain activity in mice using just scalp electrodes, pointing toward cheaper, non-invasive procedures to treat depression and other illnesses.

Neuroscience researchers are hailing a breakthrough that might make deep-brain stimulation—used as an experimental treatment for depression—less costly and invasive.

Deep-brain stimulation (DBS) is a technique wherein electrodes are planted in the brain to alter neural activity and so treat different disorders, most commonly Parkinson's disease. Though DBS has not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to target depression, experimental trials have found the technique to reduce depression symptoms in patients who have struggled to recover on more common treatments like antidepressants, as Sarah Scoles reported for Pacific Standard in March. Scoles profiled people whose depression has improved following surgeries performed by a Massachusetts General Hospital team, who found evidence earlier this year that deep-brain implants can track and monitor emotions in real time.

Now, a different research team reports in this month’s Cell that they could alter activity within deep-brain structures in mice without having to implant anything in the brain. Instead, they created different electrical fields that, when tuned to the correct levels and distance from electrodes placed on the scalp, changed activity in the hippocampus, the brain region crucial for memory, and also altered the mice's movements.

Expanding this preliminary study's findings to human brains—much larger than those of mice—is a ways off. But researchers in the field see the finding as a big step toward the possibility of cheaper, safer surgeries that could bring DBS to more patients. "It's one of those things that's like, 'Why didn't I think of that,'" Alex Widge, one of the neuroengineers on the Massachusetts General Hospital team interviewed by Scoles, told Gizmodo about the new results. "No less than four people have forwarded this study to me and said, 'Oh my god, did you see this?'"